Meeting Michelin Three-Star Chef Alvin Leung in Mumbai, Eating Out of His Hand
An acoustics engineer, the chef-owner of Bo Innovation, Hong Kong, is one of just two self-taught Michelin three-star chefs in the world.
BEING A chef-restaurateur with three Michelin stars (actually, four!) makes you a part of a micro-elite, but when you’re self-taught and still manage to gain entry into this heavenly minority, then you have only Heston Blumenthal for company.
There’s more to Alvin Leung‘s repertoire than his take on Sex on the Beach — an edible condom filled with ham and honey on a beach of mushroom — that is oft-quoted in media stories about him. There’s also nothing demoniacal about the London-born, Toronto-raised, Hong Kong-based ‘Demon Chef’, who’s presenting tonight the last of his four seven-course dinners at the JW Marriott, Juhu, Mumbai. He loves talking and yet keeps you riveted to his words; he mentions cricket and Sachin Tendulkar in the same breath as he says it is the “most boring game” in the world; and he goes to each table at the end of a meal to seek guest feedback.
Honestly, how many chefs have come to you to ask for your views on what you just ate? Leung understands the multiplier effects of a happy guest. “It is more important to have a full restaurant than to have a Michelin star,” says the owner of Bo Innovation, which shook up the Hong Kong dining scene when it first opened at the site of a former speakeasy back in 2003. Till he opened Bo Innovation, Leung, a trained acoustics engineer, had spent all his professional time in concert halls. He had never been to a cookery school — not even to a cookery class — but he had eaten at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, Blumenthal’s Fat Duck and Joel Robuchon‘s many restaurants.
Leung also understands the power of what business insiders like to call the ‘word-of-mouth’ media. “Your best guide is a good word from a friend,” says the chef who marries the best of Chinese culinary traditions with the techniques of fusion cuisine and molecular gastronomy. “You can’t hide behind a Michelin star,” he adds. And he knows the pain of going down, for Leung started with two stars and then went back to one, before he clawed his way back to two and then the coveted three (and one more for Bo London, which he opened in 2012). “It’s good to go down because you then know you have to climb up,” Leung says. “And you can’t be on top and not know that you can only go down.”
At his 40-seater restaurant, where the 15-course menu (priced at the HK$ equivalent of Rs 15,000 per person plus 10 per cent service charge; add another Rs 9,500 for wine pairing) is drawn on seasonal ingredients and changed three to four times a year, people say, you could end up getting only a bar stool even after booking a month in advance. Mumbaikars must consider themselves lucky therefore to have a six-course Alvin Leung menu for the unbelievable price of Rs 4,500 plus taxes (minus alcohol).
The non-vegetarian menu consisted of: Trio Dim Sum (the soupy Sichuan Lamb Xiao Long Bao; the delightful Chicken Pesto Spring Roll, which would be a super-hit cocktail snack if chefs learnt how to make it in India; and Truffle Har Gau); Ice Tomato with heirloom tomatoes, cottage cheese and Hong Kong’s iconic Pat Chun sweetened vinegar; flaky Chilean Sea Bass with baby bell peppers, garlic, back bean, yuzu and karasumi (the high-priced dried mullet roe, which tastes best with sake); crunchy Lobster with Sichuan Hollandaise, Bo Chilli Sauce (which, Leung explained, was influenced by the base sauce of most Malaysian curries) and corn; juicy and tender Organic Chicken served on a bed of aged arborio rice (nine years old), wood ear fungus and sand ginger cream; and Coconut Sugar Ice-Cream resting on a bed ofroasted pineapple and tapioca.
It was love at first bite. Here was a Michelin three-star chef working outside the familiar setting of his restaurant, with no control over the procurement of ingredients. For a first night, it was a stupendous success. The buzz at JW Marriott’s Spices restaurant, which the hotel’s F&B Director, Sarabjeet Singh (formerly with the JW Marriott New Delhi Aerocity), informed me is soon to be replaced by a high-end banqueting space, made it evident that my elation was being shared by all those present in the room. But then, Leung is a pro. He does 10 pop-ups a year across the world and also two TV shows, including serving as judge on Masterchef Canada, which take up three months of filming.
I asked Leung what the secret of winning a Michelin star was. “If I knew it, I would have opened a school,” he said. “It’s a big mystery, just like films that win Oscars don’t do well in the box-office, and the films that don’t become runaway hits. All I know is that it is not enough to be innovative to get a Michelin star; you’ve got to have discipline and passion.” Life doesn’t stop at three stars. You’ve got to keep elevating your cuisine and delighting your guests. Because, as Leung puts it, he didn’t open a restaurant to see disappointed guests. Smiling guests are his biggest Michelin stars.